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Family, French Cuisine, and Freedom

The Life of James Hemings

Plantation Owner’s Enslaved Son  • Brother of Sally Hemings  • Valet  • 
French Chef  • International Traveler
Free Man


James Hemings (1765-1801) was a Paris-trained Chef de Cuisine born into slavery in colonial Virginia. Serving as head chef for Thomas Jefferson for seven years, he prepared meals for America's political and societal elites at Monticello, New York City, and Philadelphia. After negotiating with Jefferson, Hemings was granted freedom in 1796 but passed away in Baltimore just five years later.

Who was James Hemings? Part 1 - Early Life
Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian Annette Gordon-Reed discusses what the documents reveal of James Hemings's early life.

Family Connections

1765 James Hemings was born at The Forest, the Virginia plantation of his father, John Wayles, a slave trader and lawyer whose daughter Martha married Thomas Jefferson.

Wayles did not acknowledge paternity of the five children he fathered with a woman he enslaved, Elizabeth Hemings, including James Hemings. When Wayles died in 1773, Jefferson inherited James Hemings, his mother, several of his siblings, and many other enslaved people who were uprooted from The Forest to become part of the enslaved community at Monticello.

Map of Thomas Jefferson's Landholdings
This map shows Thomas Jefferson's landholdings and plantations during his lifetime. Jefferson inherited The Forest from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was also the father of James Hemings.

1774 The Hemings and Jefferson families formed complex connections between one another and the connection between Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings was no exception. James Hemings was literate but left behind no memoir. First mentioned by Jefferson when Hemings sold him a mockingbird, Jefferson’s papers and correspondence provide the only record of Hemings’s life and times, revealing an individual unafraid to assert his agency and adept at navigating the world of slavery.

Family Tree

Click to Enlarge

Interwoven Families

  • Elizabeth Hemings had 12 children
  • Three of Elizabeth Hemings's children, including James, would be freed by Thomas Jefferson
  • James Hemings is the older brother of Sally Hemings
  • James Hemings and Martha Wayles Jefferson are half-siblings

1781 Little is known of James Hemings's early childhood but as a teenager, he and his older brother, Robert Hemmings, served as enslaved valets in Williamsburg and Richmond during Jefferson’s two terms as wartime Governor of Virginia. When British troops invaded Richmond in 1781, James and Robert Hemmings took Jefferson's wife and children to safety.

French Food and Culture

Who was James Hemings? Part 2 - Training in France
Annette Gordon Reed talks about James Hemings's time in France.

1784 In May 1784, Jefferson, enroute to Europe to serve as Minister to France, summoned James Hemings to travel to Paris with him and his eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson. In Paris, James Hemings trained as a French cook, learned the art of haut cuisine from the caterer and restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux, and mastered pastry making alongside chefs in the household of the Prince de Condé.

The Grille de Chaillot
This city gate, "The Grille de Chaillot," stood near the townhouse Hôtel de Langeac.
From Thomas Jefferson's Travels in Europe, 1784-1789 by George Green Shackelford.

1787 Jefferson appointed Hemings chef de cuisine - head chef - at the Hôtel de Langeac, the Paris townhouse that served as both the home and the embassy of the American delegation. Hemings prepared cuisine served to international guests, statesmen, authors, scientists, and European aristocrats, receiving a steady salary, yet half the amount Jefferson paid his previous chef de cuisine who was a white man.

1787 James Hemings hired a tutor to teach him French which enriched his work in the kitchen, exposed him to French culture, and likely made him aware of the French law that allowed an enslaved person, even one brought in from another country, to petition the courts for freedom.

1787 Sally Hemings sailed to Europe as chaperone to Jefferson’s daughter Maria and is reunited with her older brother, James. In Paris, Sally Hemings served as lady’s maid to both Martha and Maria Jefferson, likely received training in needlework and the care of clothing, and learned the French language, possibly tutored by her brother.

1789 The Jeffersons and Hemingses left Paris in October 1789 amidst the early days of the French Revolution. Sally and James Hemings return to the United States as Jefferson’s enslaved property. In 1873, Sally Hemings’s son, Madison Hemings, stated she returned as the result of a “treaty” in which Jefferson promised freedom to her yet-to-be born children. Why James Hemings returned is unknown, leading to speculation he may have formed a bargain with Jefferson for future freedom.

Chef for the Secretary of State

Who was James Hemings? Part 3 - A Chef in America
Annette Gordon Reed talks about James Hemings as a chef in America and his road to freedom.
Federal Hall in New York City, c.1797
A View of the Federal Hall of the City of New York c.1797.
By George Holland; lithograph and color printing by H.R. Robinson. Courtesy Library of Congress.

1790 Jefferson was appointed Secretary of State, renting a small house in the temporary national capital of New York City where James Hemings organized his first American kitchen and prepared the sumptuous meal that, in Jefferson’s words, was the meal “to save the union.” At the end of the night, Alexander Hamilton agreed to establishing Washington, D.C. as the permanent capital; in exchange, James Madison agreed to the federal government assuming the debt of the states.

1790In late 1790 the capital moved to Philadelphia where Hemings prepared dinners for the President, European diplomats, Jefferson's fellow cabinet members, congressmen, and many national and international visitors. His wage of seven dollars a month was the same amount Jefferson paid free staff. Hemings was often allotted "market money," indicating he made purchases for the kitchen, circulated among other free and enslaved working people and tradesmen, and likely learned he could gain legal freedom if he stayed in Philadelphia.

If a slave is brought into the State and continues therein for the space of six months, he may claim his freedom...

An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780
Congressional Hall in Philadelphia, c.1790
Congressional Hall in Philadelphia, 1790 - 1800
Library of Congress

Hemings’s several extended stays in Philadelphia (such as the period from October 22, 1791, to July 13, 1792) satisfied the requirement, yet Hemings did not file for freedom at this time.

1791 Serving as riding valet, James Hemings accompanied Jefferson and Madison on a “botanizing excursion” throughout New York state where one third of the African American population were living in freedom. At Fort George, Hemings encountered a free Black man successfully farming 250 acres of his own land.

1793 Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and prepared to return to Monticello, fully expecting James Hemings to return as well. No record of their conversation, or perhaps confrontation, exists but it appears James Hemings refused to return without the promise of freedom. There is no evidence uncovered thus far that gives more detail than the manumission agreement drawn up by Jefferson:

Having been at great expence in having James Hemings taught the art of cookery, desiring to befriend him, and to require from him as little in return as possible, I do hereby promise and declare, that if the said James shall go with me to Monticello in the course of the ensuing winter, when I go to reside there myself, and shall there continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall be thereupon made free, and I will thereupon execute all proper instruments to make him free. Given under my hand and seal in the county of Philadelphia and state of Pennsylvania this 15th. day of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety three.

Jefferson's manumission agreement with James Hemings, 1793.

Cooking at Monticello

1796 James Hemings’s younger brother, Peter Hemings, was Jefferson’s choice to be trained as “a good cook.” James trained Peter to cook using the methods he learned in France; Peter remained in bondage at Monticello as a chef, and later as a master brewer, until 1826.

The South Pavilion Kitchen

Archaeologist Crystal O'Connor describes how the stew stoves in the South Pavilion Kitchen were used by James and Peter Hemings to prepare French dishes for meals at Monticello.

1796 After completing the training of his brother as replacement chef, Thomas Jefferson freed James Hemings. On February 5, 1796, nearly two years following their return to Monticello, Jefferson drew up the document discharging James Hemings "of all duties and claims of servitude," and legally freed him from bondage:

This indenture made at Monticello in the county of Albemarle and commonwealth of Virginia on the fifth day of February one thousand seven hundred and ninety six witnesseth that I Thomas Jefferson of Monticello aforesaid do emancipate, manumit and make free James Hemings, son of Betty Hemings, which said James is now of the age of thirty years so that in future he shall be free and of free condition, and discharged of all duties and claims of servitude whatsoever, and shall have all the rights and privileges of a freedman. In witness whereof I have hereto set my hand and seal on the day and year abovewritten, and have made these presents double of the same date, tenor and indenture one whereof is lodged in the court of Albemarle aforesaid to be recorded, and the other is delivered by me to the said James Hemings to be produced when and where it may be necessary.

Signed, sealed and delivered
in presence of
John Carr
Francis Anderson
James Hemings Manumission
James Hemings's manumission document
Thomas Jefferson, 1796. Courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Freedom without equality?

Who was James Hemings? Part 4 - A Free Man
Annette Gordon Reed details James Hemings's travels and work as a free man.

1797As a free man, James Hemings traveled. His destinations are not recorded, though a May 1797 letter by Jefferson to his daughter Maria indicates he had returned to Philadelphia and planned to travel internationally:

"James is returned to this place, and is not given up to drink as I had before been informed. He tells me his next trip will be to Spain. I am afraid his journeys will end in the moon. I have endeavored to persuade him to stay where he is and lay up money."

Map of the Mid-Atlantic Colonies
A New Map of Virginia, Maryland, and the Improved Parts of Pennsylvnia & New Jersey, 1719.
By John Senex, Courtesy Library of Congress.

1801James Hemings’s travels from 1797 - 1801 are unknown, but he is working in a Baltimore tavern in 1801. President-elect Jefferson assumed Hemings would be willing to come and work for him again and sent an inquiry to Baltimore, requesting that Hemings join him. Jefferson heard back through an intermediary, William Evans, who wrote, "the answer he returned me, was, that he would not go untill you should write to himself." Jefferson received similar information from a former employee, Francis Sayes, who had worked with Hemings when they were in New York and in Philadelphia. Sayes reported,

"I have spoke to James according to your Desire he has made mention again as he did before that he was willing to serve you before any other man in the Union but sence he understands that he would have to be among strange servants he would be very much obliged to you if you would send him a few lines of engagement and on what conditions and what wages you would please to give him with your own hand wreiting."

In spite of Hemings's requests for Jefferson to reach out to him directly, Jefferson never wrote to Hemings. When Jefferson responded to Evans on the matter, he rationalized it by writing,

"I supposed I saw in the difficulties raised by James an unwillingness to come here, arising wholly from some attachment he had formed at Baltimore; for I cannot suspect an indisposition towards me."

1801Jefferson's financial records show that Hemings did return to Monticello in August and September of that year while Jefferson was in residence. Hemings received $30 in wages for six weeks of work in the Monticello kitchen.

Food historian Leni Sorensen explains how Hemings's training in France and the installation of stew stoves in Monticello's kitchen changed cooking and created Monticello's famed "half Virginian, half French" cuisine.

1801 The details surrounding Hemings's return to Monticello are unclear, but most of his family remained enslaved amidst the unending challenges faced by him as a free Black person in early America; Monticello was his home, albeit an extremely fraught and complex one. Hemings left Monticello for the last time during the late summer.

A Suicide?

1801 Just two months later, Jefferson wrote again to William Evans in Baltimore to learn the truth - were the rumors he heard true? Had James Hemings committed suicide? Within days he received confirmation that Hemings had taken his life. Only one explanation was given: "the General opinion that drinking too freely was the cause."

Who was James Hemings? Part 5 - Death
Annette Gordon Reed describes James Hemings's tragic death as a suicide.

The circumstances of James Hemings’s death leave unanswered questions. Did he suffer from depression, mental health challenges, or alcoholism, in an era when such things were only cursorily understood? Did the paradox of freedom without equality prove more than he could bear? We can only imagine his struggles while recalling not his death but a lifetime navigating the world of slavery through negotiations, resistance, agency, and accomplishment.


James Hemings’s culinary legacy was unacknowledged for over two centuries until research into original documents and recipes by modern-day chefs and culinary historians revealed James Hemings’s pioneering role in blending Virginian, French, and African recipes to create a uniquely American cuisine. Other early African American chefs – including James Hemings’s brother, Peter Hemings, his niece, Edith Fossett, and her sons Joseph and William Fossett – followed in his footsteps, making their own contributions to American foodways.

See Also: Much to Our Comfort and Satisfaction: Monticello's Enslaved Cooks

James Hemings and Macaroni and Cheese

Watch food historian Leni Sorensen discussing James Hemings and the possible link between his "macaroni pie" and modern day macaroni and cheese. From Episode 3 of Netflix's High on the Hog.


In the Media

A resurgence of interest in James Hemings’s life and culinary impact on American foodways is evidenced by several documentaries, articles, and books.

Learn More

Find information on the Hemings family, the chefs and cooks of Monticello, and James Hemings's relatives who went on to careers in the restaurant industry.

Hemingses of Monticello

The Hemingses of Monticello: Historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author Annette Gordon-Reed traces the Hemings family from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the family's dispersal after Jefferson's death in 1826.